By: Eric Wolferman
Microsoft Corp.’s newest personal-computer operating system, Windows XP, made its debut last month to a resounding whimper. You probably have heard of XP because Microsoft spent $250 million on marketing to make sure you did.
When the hype settles, XP likely will mean as much to publishers as it does to most other enterprises: very little.
It’s not that the new product is bad. By all accounts, XP is the most stable and reliable operating system Microsoft has ever produced. Anyone using Windows 95 or Windows 98 is familiar with the blue screen of death, on which appears an error message that signals a computer crash. Most early XP users report that the “blues” is now a much more rare occurrence.
But many businesses already have begun migrating to XP’s predecessor, Windows 2000, which is equally superior to the Windows 9x series. In fact, XP is based on Windows 2000 and is considered only a minor upgrade of that product.
So why should a business consider upgrading its PC fleet? For most, the answer will be that they shouldn’t. Aside from the improvement in reliability, there are few new features that provide a compelling reason to spend a great deal of money on changing.
XP sports a new user interface. It boots up faster than previous Windows releases. It supports wireless networking and includes built-in instant-messaging functions. It offers remote control of PCs over a network, a great benefit for information-technology (IT) help desks in troubleshooting user problems. And it boasts business-level reliability. But whether all of this is enough to justify the upgrade — even for those still running Windows 95 and 98 — is questionable.
Microsoft claims XP will run effectively on any PC with at least 128 megabytes (MB) of memory bought from Christmas 1999 on. But a more realistic minimum is a 600-to-800 megahertz Pentium III, with at least 256MB of memory. For most businesses, that means many hardware upgrades before they can even fire up XP. In a down economy, that’s a lot to ask. In addition, most businesses cannot consider the less expensive XP Home version because it will not work with NetWare, NT, or Windows 2000 servers.
Compatibility with peripheral devices is a concern as well. I installed XP on my own home computer and quickly discovered it was incompatible with a number of my peripherals, including a printer and a scanner. I was able to download new XP drivers for some of the devices, but others were incapacitated for good.
The cost/benefit analysis
All in all, XP won’t increase business revenue or decrease IT costs enough to justify upgrading. CIO magazine recently solicited feedback on XP from IT executives on its Web site. Among dozens of responses, it was difficult to find even one that indicated an intention to upgrade to XP.
Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based marketing-research firm, predicts that Windows 2000 will remain the leading PC operating system for the business market at least for the next year. Gartner expects 87% of consumer PCs, but only 16% of business PCs, to come with Windows XP next year. In fact, Windows 2000 will be stronger, accounting for 41% of overall new PC sales.
Why then does Microsoft think a new operating system at this juncture will succeed? Some analysts suggest that XP is aimed primarily at the consumer market so that Microsoft can move more quickly to drop support for the Windows 9x series. Be that as it may, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is already working on two new operating-system upgrades, code-named Longhorn and Blackcomb. So users are facing two more upgrades over the next four years.
The desire of Microsoft to perpetuate an ongoing market for its products is understandable. At what point, though, does the market for upgrades get saturated? Many IT analysts believe that Microsoft is overreaching, taking unfair advantage of its customers who are already hard-pressed to keep pace with new releases of dubious value. At the very least, the company should work harder at providing real technical advances to motivate customers to go through the expense and disruption of an upgrade.
Others say that XP is an attempt by Microsoft to spark weak PC sales. Gartner says computer sales have been falling by 2% a quarter this year. Gateway, the nation’s No. 4 PC maker, announced a $520-million third-quarter loss this year. But it is doubtful that XP will turn the computer industry around.
As for upgrading, here’s the prevailing advice: If you are still running Windows 95 or Windows 98, it is probably time to begin migrating to XP. But if you are already running Windows 2000 — or are in the process of moving to it — there is little reason to change in the near future.